Select Committee on Social Security Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 20 - 39)



  20. Mr Groombridge a few moments ago did say that some quite complex issues would be dealt with in that initial interview. There has been some anxiety expressed, and I think perhaps I share a little of this, that 50 minutes, even 60 stretching it, with the extra benefits analysis being done, is a very short period of time to be able to deal with quite a broad range of things.

  (Mr Brown) It is an average. There will be a range of times. The range will go from 12 minutes, which means you might check the form and find out the person has declared they are not eligible, but it could last up to 120 minutes. I think we get an average because some clients' claims will be straight forward and simple. They will be quickly processed. They will have answered all the questions on the form, they will know what they want to do and the role of the adviser will be to encourage and facilitate. There will be others, as you are suggesting, who have more complex and difficult problems and there will be time available to deal with them. If we cannot deal with them all in that interview, there is the possibility of case loading and it is those clients with the more complex problems that one would expect to be case loaded so that over a period of time you can deal with the issues.

  21. Will it be the initiative of the personal adviser to decide the length of that interview?

  (Mr Brown) Yes.

  22. It will not be subject to any formula?

  (Mr Brown) No. The key to this Single Work-focused Gateway is that we get a more personalised and tailored service than exists at the moment. That means we have to empower clients, clients and the personal advisers, to determine how long the interview needs to last. The customer focus will come from the personal adviser being able to spend the time necessary with the individual.

  23. I am very much in favour of that approach. One of the great strengths seems to me that the personal adviser will build up an on-going relationship with the customer and will be able to advise on benefits eligibility, even presumably for those benefits for which the person has not initially claimed.

  (Mr Brown) Yes.

  24. But within that period of the interview, let us take that initial interview, the 50 minutes average, how will the balance be determined between the benefits advice and exploring the various work possibilities, child care possibilities, training possibilities and so on? Is that again going to be determined by the personal adviser?

  (Mr Brown) Yes. Determined by the personal adviser and the client because the client will have filled in their claim form and it is from going through the claim form and looking at the elements within it that there will be evidence for the personal adviser to take the interview in particular directions or the client to take it in particular directions. I think it is not an algorithmic situation that you will be in but one which will be unique to each individual.

  25. Finally, a similar question to the initial registration and orientation interview: any possibility or any likelihood of delays in processing claims as a result of the requirement for each claimant to go through the Work-focused interview?

  (Mr Brown) There should not be. There will be a target for the benefit claim, the personal adviser interview to be a maximum of three days after the interview with the registration and orientation adviser. The aim will be to get the claim processed as quickly as possible after the work-focused interview so that we can pay the client, if they are entitled, as quickly as possible.


  26. I want to turn to Karen Buck in a moment but can I just clarify an answer that you gave to Chris a moment ago. Am I safe to assume that the new process will seek to maximise entitlement to benefit?

  (Mr Brown) I am not sure what you mean by "maximise entitlement to benefit"?

  27. Will it go prospecting for benefits that the customers may not be aware they are entitled to before they arrive but will be told about before they leave?

  (Mr Brown) I think over a period of time, including the Work-focused interview and case loading, that will occur. One of the things we want to do is make sure clients are aware of the various in work benefits that are available, and draw their attention to how housing benefit, council tax benefit can be a work incentive and what other benefits exist that can be work incentives to clients.

  28. If you came across somebody who was entitled potentially to a Disability Living Allowance, would that be drawn to their attention also?

  (Mr Brown) Yes.

Ms Buck

  29. Before I ask some questions which in a way follow on from Chris's, and client groups and exemptions and sensitivities that one would expect of the advisers, can I make a quick point about the extremely helpful brief that was given to us? It is picking up the point about child care—which I do not think is covered elsewhere in some of the questions to be asked—where you list all the tasks that you anticipate the personal adviser would deal with, the words "child care" do not appear. Now I appreciate that they are implicit, you discuss the client's circumstances and barriers to work in particular, but it does worry me a little bit because when I have sat in on the New Deal personal adviser assessments, which I thought were marvellous and absolutely wonderful, what happened in terms of advising people about the availability of child care was to say "Here is a list of childminders" and this is not going to work. Certainly it is not going to work in areas of child care shortage which are vast areas of London and the South East. I just want to be reassured that you will seek to pull out the issue of child care much more explicitly and make it something which is more than simply handing out a piece of paper that has a list of registered childminders already in your area. Indeed, child care is so fundamental that that kind of handing out of information is not good enough. Do you want to respond to that?

  (Mr Brown) Yes, I will respond to that and then Chris may want to add something. Within the period of time for the personal adviser interview there is an allowance to discuss child care with the client so that they can begin to explore the type of child care arrangements that are needed. Chris may want to add to that.
  (Mr Barnham) The experience you are talking about, I presume, is the New Deal for Lone Parents?

  30. Yes.

  (Mr Barnham) There has been an element of child care advice in that, obviously not always as good as you would have wanted, and also support for people's child care while they are looking for work as well. To a certain extent that has not been able to be as good as we would have wanted because the New Deal for Lone Parents was ahead of the child care strategy. There is more coming on stream and what we are doing at the moment is for each of the pilots that starts in June, and longer term for the November pilots as well, looking at what the local plans say for child care and trying to match that up with what the implementation teams will have on offer and be able to offer people locally. It is still early to say exactly what the experience will be but it ought to be getting better for lone parents and, indeed, for others. One thing that this will give us is the sorts of expertise and training that New Deal for Lone Parents advisers can offer to people will be available more widely because it is not just lone parents, for example, that have child care needs. We expect the position to get better in these pilots. More crucially from April 2000 there will be a very important need for good quality child care to be available locally in each neighbourhood because we will be asking people to do things that they have not had to do before, they will have to come and talk to a personal adviser where at the moment it is completely voluntary. That is an issue that we have got on the books and one that we will be looking at very closely.

  31. Can you assure me that whatever else there is produced a list of different tasks and responsibilities of personal advisers, whether that is in terms of recruitment or training, so you do pull out child care and make it explicit? It is too important to be left to an implicit subclause of barriers to work.

  (Mr Brown) It is one of the areas that we will be covering at the conference on 16/17 June.

  32. If I may talk to you a little bit about the issue of exemptions. Obviously once the interviews become compulsory from April 2000, in relation to the issue of who is likely to be exempted, or available for the adviser to choose to defer an interview, is very, very important. I think everyone, certainly everybody in this room, wants this to work and I think what is important is that we do not get quite quickly into some of those examples which get round on the grapevine, and even in the media, about inappropriate requests to attend for an interview. Surely if we knew of those the whole atmosphere would start to flounder quite quickly? We know that some of the categories of people for exemption at the moment are recently bereaved, single parents with very young children, people with demanding caring responsibilities and those suffering from acute illnesses. Before I ask you about another category can I just say that even those are very, very open to interpretation. In what form is the advice going to be given around, let us say, particularly those categories, first of all? Is that going to be turned into an explicit checklist of people not to invite and, if so, are we talking about the recently bereaved, within six months, are we talking about parents of children under three? Can you give me a little more information?

  (Mr Groombridge) Can I start perhaps and Lee will come in on the guidance itself. On this whole question of deferrals at interview, I think Ministers are quite clear that they do not want to go back to the situation where currently we treat people in fairly rigid categories by saying: "The benefit limits the treatment that you get when you enter the benefit system" and it is prescribed in a rigid way. I think, therefore, what they are more inclined to say is that an interview conducted immediately as people enter the benefits system, would not clearly be a meaningful experience such as in some of the circumstances that you have described. Certainly the kinds of examples that ministers have quoted have been very much non-exhaustive. They include categories like, for example, recently bereaved widows who may be grieving over the fact that their loved one has died. Clearly that is not a circumstance in which you would conduct an immediate interview about the possibility of work. So really the watchword is very much one of sensitivity and whether a discussion at that point in time would be meaningful. I do not think that we could get to a point where we can define in a black and white sort of way exactly the circumstances in which that would be the case. Now, Lee will describe the guidance but my understanding is that both the training and the guidance itself will be very much geared towards exhorting advisers to be sensitive and to have regard to whether or not there is a realistic prospect of that interview being meaningful.
  (Mr Brown) I think what we will be seeking to do is a number of things. I think before I discuss guidance, what we have to do is look at the type of person we want to become a personal adviser. The job specification that we put out in response to the design describes in detail the responsibilities and accountabilities of the individuals that take it up, the types of competencies they need to have and the approach they need to take to all of this, that is, focused on the need for someone who wants to do the job, is sensitive to client needs, is client focused. So that is the first aspect of it. The second aspect of it is we will be putting on Single Work-focused Gateway specific training which will last probably four or five days as it says in the memorandum you saw. The purpose of that is so advisers understand the processes that the Single Work-focused Gateway is seeking to put in place, where the Single Work-focused Gateway fits in with welfare reform and the type of cultural change we want to bring about through this. That is the background. What we should be aiming for is personal advisers who understand the nature of the relationship they should have with clients, which is what Jeremy has been describing. The guidance will be as Jeremy said. It will not be a list of client groups that you should exclude from interviews but it will be saying to personal advisers they need to judge in each situation whether this client is able and capable of taking full advantage of the work-focused interview and if not defer it. It is a situation where we do not want to categorise people and in categorising remove them from the help that is available. We need to be sensitive. It may very well be that someone who has just been widowed does want to get a job right away, maybe a lone parent wants a job right away, and it may be that a disabled person wants to find work. We need to operate on that basis and help them take advantage of it. I do not think it is possible for us to have a list of exclusions from interviews which are just placed in black and white in front of the personal advisers.

  33. Part of me is enormously sympathetic to that, part of me is terribly worried by it. I certainly see the dangers of having a list approach and ending up so comprehensive in your list of exclusions that you are not touching 95 per cent of the people. On the other hand, in a sense an element of compulsion in this is heavy. It is a real pressure. I guess what I feel from what you are saying is you are putting an awful lot of trust in people who have a very short period of training. There is a lot of potential for it to go wrong. The training is important but guidance is going to be very important not only to avoid very bad backfiring stories that will end up all over the press and will cause damage to people but there is a danger of duplication. I tell an anecdote which is very short where I am sitting in on a housing interview in my local housing office with a woman coming out of hospital and seeking to go down the homelessness route, seeking to be rehoused by the council, who has already been through an extensive process of being interviewed by psychiatric social workers, by all the staff in the hospitals in terms of benefit claims and preparation to leave hospital, community care preparation and what have you, and yet the system requires her to go through another interview with a separate person who is trained in homelessness, probably actually broadly comparable in terms of skill, salary and all the rest of it that we are expecting for the personal adviser who asks the question in the interview: "When did you last attempt suicide?" It just worries me that we are expecting an awful lot of these people and I can see all kinds of dangers from it unless the guidance that you give is very, very explicit. How are people going to be taught in five days to deal not only with the groups we have already outlined, people with serious mental health problems, what about people in temporary accommodation? In London alone tens of thousands of people are in temporary accommodation, the vast majority of them would not be appropriate at this moment in time.

  (Mr Brown) The fact is it is not just Single Work-focused Gateway specific training. It is what I was saying earlier, we will be recruiting people to do this personal adviser's job from the Employment Service, Benefit Agency, local authorities, Child Support Agency, who in the main are already advisers of one kind or the other. We know that there will be a number of New Deal personal advisers and New Deal for Lone Parents advisers becoming Single Work-focused Gateway personal advisers. They will be bringing with them a range of competencies and skills, they will be bringing with them accumulated training. They will have gone through training in the past. What we will be doing is adding to that training. As well as the Single Work-focused Gateway specific there will be developmental training available. What each newly appointed adviser will do will be to discuss with their manager what training they need to be able to carry out this job. Amongst that training is training to help special clients, clients with special needs. Those who have not gone through that training in the past will go through it before they are able to become Single Work-focused Gateway advisers. They will develop a contract with their manager, the manager will judge when they have come back from that training whether they are ready to be Single Work-focused Gateway personal advisers or not and carry out the improvement work that is necessary for them to operate. I think what we have got to see is these will be amongst the best staff from the Employment Service, Benefit Agencies and local authorities becoming Single Work-

focused Gateway personal advisers and being able to draw upon the existing training modules that are available from the Employment Service, Benefits Agency and local authorities to deal with these.

  34. How are you going to prevent the quite distinct pattern of variations between advisers and between areas over these kinds of issues because it may very well be that one adviser or even a cluster of advisers in a particular area, perhaps with a particular background or mindset for example to mothers of very young children working, will adopt a particular approach towards those interviews than people in another area?

  (Mr Brown) Within the district or area the advisers will operate as a virtual team. What will happen in each locality is there will be a team of advisers who are delivering the Single Work-focused Gateway. They will have a manager who will be able to get them together as a group to discuss scenarios, to ensure there is a consistency of interpretation and action. Across the district as a whole the people who are currently implementation managers after June 28 in the basic pilot will have the task of looking at what is happening in each office to ensure that there is consistency and to work towards that consistency. We are also telling people who are becoming advisers that we expect them to be continuously developing themselves and that there is a range of modules and training courses available within the organisations so that if weaknesses or inconsistencies in their approaches are identified we can seek to give them the training or the modular information they need in order to become more consistent.


  35. Jeremy?

  (Mr Groombridge) I just want to add to that by saying that it is quite important to recognise that personal advisers will not be working in isolation, the idea is of them working with multi-disciplinary teams, having access to specialist support. Indeed in some of the difficult and hard cases that you mentioned, and you quoted some of the mentally ill as an example of that, I think it is probable that individuals will want to bring an advocate along with them. I think it would again be a question of working with them together. Personal advisers are not going to be working in isolation and neither will they be working in a way that is not monitored.
  (Mr Barnham) Could I just add a point to that? All the points you raise are really very important ones and it is essential, and it will happen, that this will be thoroughly monitored and thoroughly evaluated and very, very closely watched in the way it works. But fundamentally this issue is really one of the key things that policy is about. Can you move away from a system that says if you are claiming that benefit you get this treatment. What the Single Gateway is trying to achieve is to treat people more according to their personal circumstances. It is really quite difficult to see how you can do that if you recreate a sub-set of categories below the benefit level. Yes, the guidance is extremely important, the way people are trained is extremely important, but fundamentally that is one of the things that this is testing, how well can that work.

Ms Buck

  36. I do understand that, I am just slightly alarmed by what I may be wrongly interpreting as being probably these problems will not arise, that these will be such good people. I find that slightly worrying and worth mentioning. Can I put another question? What happens to people who do not turn up for the interview?

  (Mr Brown) At what point?

  37. The initial interview for the work-focused interview.

  (Mr Groombridge) I will describe the position with regard to the regime that, subject to legislation, will be in place and operated from April of next year. For people who do not come in for the Work-focused interview, the way the legislation is phrased, who do not participate in the Work-

focused interview, their claim will not be regarded as having been made until they do come in for the interview. For people who fail to attend or participate in a deferred interview, when that interview is arranged and set up, then their benefit will be terminated if they refuse to attend. There will be measures taken to make sure that they know when it is going to take place, and there will be a number of attempts made to refix that interview if they do not attend. People who fail to attend or participate in an interview which is triggered by events that will be specified in the regulations as follow-up interviews, will face a reduction in benefit if they do not attend that follow-up interview.

  38. What sort of Work-focused intervention would be appropriate, do you think, for people who make a claim for Invalid Care Allowance, given the restrictions on what Invalid Care Allowance allows you to do?

  (Mr Groombridge) There is a number of reasons for encouraging carers to come through the Gateway to claim their Invalid Care Allowance. One of the things that we hope we will be able to encourage them to do is to start thinking about either what employment, if any, they can fit around their caring responsibilities but also about how to begin to plan for when those caring responsibilities end or when there is a change in the nature of them. So what we are trying to do is first to establish a kind of relationship with them which enables them to speak to a personal adviser but also to get them to start thinking about the possibilities of either work which they could fit around the benefit or work that can take place after benefit has ceased.

  39. Clients who are claiming short term incapacity benefit will have their period of incapacity covered by medical certificates. Will these clients receive a work-focused interview at the beginning of the claim?

  (Mr Groombridge) Yes, the idea is that the work-focused interview should take place at the outset because again, as I explained earlier, we want to encourage them to think about what happens once, hopefully, they begin to recover. It is a long term process of planning, a step by step approach to independence.

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